Magic: the Gathering’s most popular format?

Hi everybody, and welcome back to Strictly Average MTG for another article. I hope you all have been well, and enjoying some of the Modern tournaments that have been played recently. The format continues to adapt from the last banned and restricted update, and I’ll provide my thoughts on that in a future article. Recently I attended Magicfest Indianapolis, and spent a lot of time playing Magic: the Gathering with a few friends. Not only did I have a lot of fun, but I also wanted to provide my thoughts on the format I played. In my opinion this is perhaps the most popular format right now in Magic: the Gathering, and for some of you that may be quite a surprise.

One of the greatest aspects of Magic: the Gathering is the different ways to play. There are many different ways to this. From drafting booster packs, building your own deck to play casually with your friends at home, or even build one of the best decks to compete at an event that could lead to even larger events such as The Mythic Championship. However while those styles of play may have a lot of players participate there is one way to play that seems to blend a lot of these different interests in playing the game into one format.

That format is Commander.


What is Commander?

Commander is a multi-player casual format where you build a 100-card deck; the only cards you can have more than one of are your basic lands. One of the cards in your deck is known as your Commander, is a Legendary creature, and is placed in a special play zone called The Command Zone instead of in your deck. The colors in its cost indicate what colors are allowed in your deck.

That’s the simplest explanation of the format. This format has its roots in the history of Magic: the Gathering. One of the earliest casual formats in Magic was called Highlander, which allowed players to play the cards they were not using in other decks. Just like in Commander, players could only play single copies of cards that were not basic lands. Created as a means to play casually between matches, this format spun of its own variants, up to and including the Singleton format that you may have seen on MTG Arena.

From there players created a multiplayer format called Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH for short. This variant of the Highlander format still kept the same rules in deck construction, but allowed for one of the 100 cards in the deck to be one of the original Legendary dragon creatures from Legends. Card such as Nicol Bolas, or Chromium, for example, were the first creatures named as Elder Dragons, giving them a status that seemed above Legendary to many players. These dragons would be placed in the command zone, and not your main deck. Used as the foundation to build multi-color singleton decks, these creatures were very popular with players early on in the game’s history. Over the years more Legendary dragons were added to Magic, including revisiting the original Elder Dragons now with new abilities in Core Set 2019.

During that era the format grew to allow other non-dragon Legendary creatures for players to use providing more options, more color combinations, and a spotlight on favorite characters in the many stories of Magic: the Gathering. This format grew in popularity so much that in summer of 2011 Wizards of the Coast produced the first in a series of pre-constructed decks for this format, while also re-naming it Commander.

Providing players five decks in the color combinations of the “Wedge” colors (two enemy pairs combined with one allied pairing such as Kaalia of the Vast being White, Black, and Red) these decks were an instant hit. Providing players reprints as well as brand new cards these decks paved the way for the format as we know it now.

While prior to this players wanting to play this format had to build their decks from scratch, there is one important thing the first run of Commander pre-constructed decks provided: A point of entry.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Let’s take a look.

Pre-Constructing the format

In my opinion having these decks ready to play out of the box is always ideal. Even if you are just going to play them against one other person upon purchase, having a product to play right away is key to the success of the Commander product line. There is one caveat with this though. The decks have to truly be playable. They can’t just be a collection of cards thrown together, and one deck should not be superior to the others. On top of that, the decks need to have quality reprints, and interesting new cards to draw interest. That’s a lot to balance if you are building a deck on your own, let alone designing one at Wizards of the Coast.

There have been some really good decks in the last few years. Let’s take a look at a few and see if we can find any differences, and areas of improvement for future pre-constructed decks.

Commander 2019

With this year’s batch of Commander decks I chose the Faceless Menace deck.

This deck has a focus on playing creatures with the Morph mechanic. Those creatures allow you to pay three mana of any color to play a 2/2 colorless creature. You can pay their Morph ability to turn them face up, and then the creature’s abilities will activate.

The thought of paying for a creature twice (once when you play it, and once again for its morph cost) may not sound appealing to some players. However, the effects on these creatures not only offer solutions to what the opponent is playing, but also provide a faceless threat. This is the primary theme for this deck based on it’s commander: Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer.

Let’s take a look at the deck in its pre-constructed form.

Commander (1)
Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer

Artifacts (5)
Pendant of Prosperity
Scroll of Fate
Strionic Resonator
Sol Ring
Thran Dynamo

Creatures (31)
Rayami, First of the Fallen
Volrath, the Shapestealer
Kadena’s Silencer
Thought Sponge
Thieving Amalgam
Apex Altisaur
Grismold, the Dreadsower
Deathmist Raptor
Hooded Hydra
Chromeshell Crab
Kheru Spellsnatcher
Stratus Dancer
Thousand Winds
Vesuvan Shapeshifter
Bane of the Living
Grim Haruspex
Silumgar Assassin
Den Protector
Seedborn Muse
Thelonite Hermit
Sagu Mauler
Voice of Many
Ainok Survivalist
Great Oak Guardian
Nantuko Vigilante
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Icefeather Aven

Enchantments (4)
Gift of Doom
Trail of Mystery
Bounty of the Luxa
Secret Plans

Instants (7)
Sudden Substitution
Biomass Mutation
Leadership Vacuum
Echoing Truth
Reality Shift
Sultai Charm

Planeswalkers (1)
Vraska the Unseen

Sorceries (11)
Road of Return
Ghastly Conscription
Overwhelming Stampede
Tempt with Discovery
Mire in Misery
Tezzeret’s Gambit
Urban Evolution
Lands (40)
Darkwater Catacombs
Exotic Orchard
Llanowar Wastes
Shrine of the Forsaken Gods
Sunken Hollow
Thespian’s Stage
Yavimaya Coast
Ash Barrens
Bojuka Bog
Command Tower
Dimir Aqueduct
Evolving Wilds
Foul Orchard
Golgari Guildgate
Golgari Rot Farm
Jungle Hollow
Myriad Landscape
Opulent Palace
Reliquary Tower
Simic Growth Chamber
Simic Guildgate
Temple of the False God
Terramorphic Expanse
Thornwood Falls
Woodland Stream

This deck has a lot going for it with the morph creatures, acceleration in spells such as Explore, and Farseek, while also providing reprint dual lands in Llanowar Wastes plus Yavimaya Coast.

The deck’s artifacts look to help you cast creatures facedown for three mana. But as those artifacts produce colorless mana, I can’t help but think of the inclusion of certain artifacts that would be immediate upgrades to this deck.

These are perhaps the most important artifacts for this format. While the Talisman cycle was finished with this year’s Modern Horizons, having another printing of at least Talisman of Dominance would have been beneficial when reviewing quality reprints. When providing reprints for this product they do not necessarily have to be rares, or mythic rares, nor have to be cards at a price around $20.00. Often times cards needed to play this format are going to be in the common and uncommon rarity, and if a lot of those cards are above $2.00 or $3.00 a piece it can make updating the deck a bit more difficult for players wanting to improve upon the pre-constructed deck. We also need to understand that the signets have been provided before. While this deck is fine out of the box, I feel including at least one of these options would have really benefited the deck, and new players entering the format. Each deck includes a Sol Ring every year so why not a signet or two as well?

Let’s take a look at the previous two years of decks to illustrate the importance of the Signets, and see what other cards could have been included that would be beneficial for casual.

Commander 2018

Subjective Reality is a deck that focuses on having your permanents leave the battlefield, and then come back into play to produce an effect. Felidar Guardian is an example of a recent card that has an ability when it enters play, and having it leave to come back again provides a lot of value.

Here is the pre-constructed deck for the primary commander Aminatou, the Fateshifter,

Commander (1)
Aminatou, the Fateshifter

Artifacts (8)
Azorius Signet
Commander’s Sphere
Crystal Ball
Dimir Signet
Mind Stone
Orzhov Signet
Seer’s Lantern
Sol Ring

Creatures (26)
Enigma Sphinx
Varina, Lich Queen
Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign
Boreas Charger
Magus of the Balance
Night Incarnate
Sower of Discord
Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow
Serra Avatar
Adarkar Valkyrie
Conundrum Sphinx
Djinn of Wishes
Jeskai Infiltrator
Sphinx of Jwar Isle
Sphinx of Uthuun
Phyrexian Delver
Duskmantle Seer
High Priest of Penance
Silent-Blade Oni
Loyal Unicorn
Loyal Subordinate
Geode Golem
Ninja of the Deep Hours
Sigiled Starfish
Pilgrim’s Eye

Enchantments (3)
Primordial Mist

Sorceries (12)
Aminatou’s Augury
Entreat the Dead
Skull Storm
Entreat the Angels
Army of the Damned
Akroma’s Vengeance
Devastation Tide
Dream Cache
Treasure Hunt

Instants (10)
Aethermage’s Touch
Crib Swap
Utter End
Banishing Stroke
Return to Dust
Telling Time
Esper Charm
Lands (40)
Isolated Watchtower
Forge of Heroes
Arcane Sanctum
Azorius Chancery
Azorius Guildgate
Barren Moor
Command Tower
Dimir Aqueduct
Dimir Guildgate
Dismal Backwater
Forsaken Sanctuary
Halimar Depths
Jwar Isle Refuge
Lonely Sandbar
Meandering River
Mortuary Mire
New Benalia
Orzhov Basilica
Orzhov Guildgate
Scoured Barrens
Secluded Steppe
Sejiri Refuge
Submerged Boneyard
Tranquil Cove

As you can see this deck has quite a few cards around its primary theme, and it also includes the three Signets in its colors: Azorius Signet, Dimir Signet, and Orzhov Signet.

What this deck could have used to improve its quality of play out of the box are one or two of these lands.

The Pain land cycle, first introduced in Ice Age has always been viewed as a solid budget dual land option. A lot of these pre-constructed decks provide lands that come into play tapped. In a deck where you frequently cause your permanents to leave the battlefield, and then return to play, entering tapped is a bit too much of a cost. Yes it requires paying a life to get a colored mana from them, however if they are not going to appear in a Standard set anytime soon, where else could these lands receive a reprint? Some of them were reprinted in Commander 2016, but in my opinion these lands are the next upgrade after the signets for most players.

Commander 2017

Deck that are built around a creature type, often called tribal decks, are a hallmark of not only Commander but Magic: the Gathering as a whole. In 2017 we received a pre-constructed deck around Vampires. Providing a deck that encouraged the player to attack was a nice addition to the world of Commander as a lot of decks seem to take several turns before being able to start attacking confidently. Don’t get me wrong; while this is an aggro deck there are still tricks this deck has.

Here’s the pre-constructed deck for Vampiric Bloodlust.

Commander (1)
Edgar Markov

Artifacts (10)
Blade of the Bloodchief
Door of Destinies
Well of Lost Dreams
Heirloom Blade
Boros Signet
Orzhov Signet
Rakdos Signet
Sol Ring
Worn Powerstone

Creatures (26)
Licia, Sanguine Tribune
Mathas, Fiend Seeker
Kheru Mind-Eater
Patron of the Vein
Bloodsworn Steward
Crimson Honor Guard
Anowon, the Ruin Sage
Bloodlord of Vaasgoth
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Butcher of Malakir
Captivating Vampire
Dark Impostor
Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
Malakir Bloodwitch
Skeletal Vampire
Vein Drinker
Bloodline Necromancer
Blood Artist
Bloodhusk Ritualist
Falkenrath Noble
Pawn of Ulamog
Vampire Nighthawk
Rakish Heir
Stromkirk Captain
Tithe Drinker

Enchantments (8)
Kindred Boon
Blind Obedience
Black Market
Sanguine Bond
Underworld Connections
Outpost Siege
Curse of Vitality
Curse of Disturbance

Instants (7)
Teferi’s Protection
Crackling Doom
Return to Dust
Swords to Plowshares
Go for the Throat
Skeletal Scrying

Sorceries (11)
New Blood
Disrupt Decorum
Kindred Charge
Fell the Mighty
Blood Tribute
Consuming Vapors
Damnable Pact
Merciless Eviction
Ambition’s Cost
Read the Bones
Syphon Mind
Lands (37)
Path of Ancestry
Akoum Refuge
Bloodfell Caves
Bojuka Bog
Boros Garrison
Boros Guildgate
Cinder Barrens
Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Forsaken Sanctuary
Kabira Crossroads
Nomad Outpost
Opal Palace
Orzhov Basilica
Orzhov Guildgate
Rakdos Carnarium
Rakdos Guildgate
Scoured Barrens
Stone Quarry
Terramorphic Expanse
Urborg Volcano
Wind-Scarred Crag

Just like with the last deck we looked at there is one glaring omission.

One or two of these would have been a great benefit. With an aggro deck you want to cast your spells on time, and keep the pressure going when you need to make your final moves to knock out the player that is the biggest threat to your plans. This deck also includes each of the signets in it’s color combination (Boros Signet, Orzhov Signet, and Rakdos Signet respectfully).

Why does this matter?

The one thing that many Commander players do is make changes to their deck either right out of the box, or after playing it a few times as it is. Many even think about cards to pick up for upgrades before they buy the deck. While some cards players look at for upgrades are only based around that specific deck or theme there are cards that go into nearly all Commander decks. Those are:

Of those options in the last bullet point above, most players are going to lean towards budget options. This is where the lands I mentioned earlier in this article become so important. Personalizing a Commander deck is one of the rewarding parts of participating in this format. It doesn’t matter how often you play, or how many decks you have, but you can personalize your deck in many ways. From playmats, to sleeves, and even cards that fit the story of your commander there’s a multitude of ways to make it something special. To make it yours. However, when Commander staples such as the pain lands or signets are not in stock at stores, it’s much harder for players to upgrade their decks.

Staples in a pre-constructed Commander deck are like soundtracks in movies. They both compliment each other while the story is being told, and oftentimes the better the soundtrack the more enjoyable the experience.

In conclusion

By providing a few more budget staples to pre-constructed Commander decks not only will players be able to enjoy an overall better play experience out of the box, but the path to customization won’t be met with the majority of players all looking for the same cards. While supply and demand is the backbone of Magic: the Gathering’s secondary market, that pain should not be felt as hard on those who enjoy casual formats as it does in more competitive formats. We’re only talking about commons, uncommons, and lower grade rares here. Not cards worth $20 or more. For a format that nearly every player looks forward to when the new calendar year begins, having more staples in the deck will help drive interest, and celebrate its success.

Thank you all for reading. I know it’s been a few weeks since there has been new content, however I appreciate you stopping by for a few moments of your time. What do you think of the Commander pre-constructed decks? What other areas of improvement would you suggest? Leave a comment below, and follow me on both Facebook as well as Twitter.

Next time it’s time to talk about the Modern format after the changes announced on August 26th, and while doing so…revisit Standard’s past? Stay tuned.

Until then…



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